It seems that the world is being assaulted by an almost biblical torrent of floods, plagues and pestilence.Our crops are being annihilated by pests and diseases, severe weather is affecting all corners of the globe, and now mysterious viruses are taking their toll on human life.

The latest virus to hit the headlines is Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or MERS, a close relative of the Asian flu SARS, the lethal virus that spread through the East ten years ago leaving 800 people dead.

MERS is known to be even more deadly than SARS and has no known vaccine or cure; its only saving grace is that it appears to be far less infectious than its predecessor. Nevertheless, it has already killed 100 people across the Middle Eastern region and is still spreading, with Egypt declaring its first official case this weekend. The unsuspecting host transporting the virus into that country was a 27-year-old civil engineer who had recently returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi government has fired its Minister of Health, Abdullah al-Rabia, after he had told the media that he had no idea why MERS cases were on the increase.The Saudi government is keen to avert panic, and has linked the rise in cases to the changing seasons.

"We have faced an increase in the number of cases around the same time last year at the end of winter," a Saudi health official commented.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has conducted a report into the virus in which it also suggested that seasonality may play a role, though an increase in awareness could also account for the higher numbers of official cases. The report did express concern that the disease now appears to be spreading via human contact; initially, the first cases were thought to have been contracted by contact with camels.

WHO are still confident that the disease is not very contagious and will be contained in the Middle East, though a report on MERS in PLOS Pathogens September last year confirmed that infections had been reported in the United Kingdom, Tunisia, France, Italy, and Germany, and had been imported into those countried via travel from the Middle East. The report also suggested that the most likely trans-species contagion had arisen from bats, as with SARS, rather than with camels as suggested by other sources.

Ultimately, it is not yet clear where the virus has originated from, and conspiracy theorists conjecture that such viral outbreaks could be linked to bio-terrorism. The recent news that 2,300 vials of the dangerous SARS virus has gone missing from a French laboratory will only serve to propagate such theories as quickly as the mystery viruses themselves.

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